Ravished by Ravel before Edinburgh

The BBC Proms is the greatest festival of live music in the world and we all feel part of it every summer, whether we go to the Albert Hall or just stay home listening on the radio.

Even if you don’t listen at all, the Proms, almost by osmosis, become part of our everyday lives for two months.

Last night’s performance of Mozart’s last piano concerto, Ligeti starkness (a minimalist item used by Stanley Kubrick in Eyes Wide Shut) eliding into a fantastic fight between piano and orchestra by George Benjamin, and three ravishing orchestral pieces by Ravel, was an absolute peach of a programme.

Unfortunately, George Benjamin’s mother had died in the morning, after a long illness, so the composer himself was not on hand to update me on his latest collaboration with playwright Martin Crimp.

But Proms director Roger Wright had drawn an unusual collection of head musical honchos nonetheless to his box: his predecessor Nick Kenyon, now at the Barbican, and two former Edinburgh Festival directors, Brian McMaster and Robert Ponsonby.

McMaster told me that he’s planning an excursion to Clacton-on-Sea in Essex to sample a new end-of-the-pier variety show, and I promised I’d join him.

I last saw him in  this somewhat unexpected “showbiz” context at the end of the pier in Cromer, where he was skyving off planning his next festival and consuming an ice-cream, to boot.

And with the Edinburgh Festival looming again this week, the magisterial presence of Robert Ponsonby was a welcome reminder that he is one of the founding fathers of the cultural jamboree in Auld Reekie.

The seeds were sown in 1940, when Glyndebourne director Rudolph Bing was accompanying the singer Audrey Mildmay from a concert in the King’s Theatre, round the castle, and back to the Caledonian Hotel.

One of them, inspired by the setting of the moonlit fortification, remarked that Edinburgh had all the makings of an international festival city.

Five years later, Bing’s Glyndebourne delegation sold the idea to the Edinburgh city fathers, and Bing — whose assistant was Ponsonby — directed the first festival in 1947.

Ponsonby himself succeeded Bing and Ian Hunter in the top festival post in 1956. And in his farewell festival, exactly fifty years ago, he booked four unknown comedians — Alan Bennett, Jonathan Miller, Dudley Moore and Peter Cook — with their revue, Beyond the Fringe.

So Ponsonby inadvertently launched the fringe, too. Which is why I always feel a pang of nostalgic regret when people assume that the Edinburgh Festival begins and ends with comics in the Assembly Rooms or Gilded Balloon.   

One of the greatest post-Beyond the Fringe comedians in the satire boom was John Bird, now 73 years old, and he was crammed into Roger Wright’s box, too, last night.

He was telling me of his love of modern jazz and Stockhausen when I involuntarily remarked that he really does bear a remarkable resemblance to the late, great Karlheinz.

Well, he said, he had actually once interviewed Stockhausen on a live television arts programme, and had been berated by one of the people in the audience for writing unadulterated rubbish.

Which was a bit hard on his excellent comedy material with the likes of David Frost, Ned Sherrin, John Cleese and John Fortune.

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